“Are we in the United States, now?”

“Keep running!” My dad urged me, in Spanish.

We were crossing the widest road that I had ever seen. This one had multiple lanes and cars zoomed faster than in any at my home town. In the grassy divide of the freeway, we waited for a cluster of headlights to pass before making our second sprint across the next set of asphalt lanes. The coyote lead the way; I followed. Dad jogged behind me, with Gloria in one arm and our green metal suitcase dangling from his right hand. Mom hurried with Miguel who was tucked on her side. A young couple we met minutes earlier ran with us. Finally, on the other side of I-5, the coyote lead us to a neighborhood of homes and warehouses. In the dim light, the buildings appeared gray and tan. Gathered in an area that could have been a small dirt parking lot were five other people, including our coyote’s colleague. After a brief introduction of us all, our coyote advised us to keep our voices down.

Approximate crossing point. The walk to San Ysidro was about 30 minutes. In 1974, there were no shopping centers. We crossed the border (thru a slit in the fence, crossed the Tijuana River and then crossed the I-5.

“They patrol this place a couple of times a night. They may not have come yet,” said the coyote.

“What time is it?” asked the young lady who crossed with us. Her partner gave her a look like a parent turning to a child when the young one blurts something during Mass.

“Almost 1:40,” responded the coyote. “The bus comes by at two. It’s always best to be early. I hope that those clouds hold.”

The coyote surveilled the above the rooftops. It was overcast and there was a chill in the air. His name was Francisco but went by Franqui. Until then, I had not never heard the nickname. Franqui was thin with loose sandy-brown curls. They sprung out from the rim of his black baseball hat. Now, I think of them as the last trace of what may have been a fun childhood. His jaw was defined by a sharp edge and jutted forward at the chin. He was taller than my dad. Perhaps, I’m his height now, but in 1974, I was five years old. That fellow seemed like a small tower as he stood, ten steps from the rest of us. His eyes were alert and turned in the direction of any shuffling that came from the cool night.

The young couple, Pablo and Mónica, appeared as nervous as I felt in my belly.

“Are you cold,” asked Pablo. Mónica nodded no. She wore knitted sweater light that blue one that my tía María had back home—wide collar folded over and the arms were baggy. We met Pablo and Mónica, as well as Franqui, at the fence. The three waited for us exactly where Franqui’s jefe had indicated that morning.

“Take a taxi to Zona Norte, and get off at this address, off of La Vía Internacional,” Ramón began, handing my dad a note, over the table. He tapped his index finger next to his coffee and moved it along the tabletop as if tracing a map. From your hotel, the taxi will turn right onto La Vía. Stop at the address. At 1 am, Franqui will wait for you across the street and on the other side of the fence. There will be a slit in the chain-linked fence and Franqui will smoke a cigarette so that you may spot him easily. It may still be cloudy. Make sure that you cross La Vía when there are no cars in view.” advised Ramón as he looked over my dad.

I observed the conversation from the edge of the table in a small restaurant that served two breakfast items: chorizo with eggs and chorizo with potatoes.  I had the later. Mom and my siblings were at the hotel where we arrived the night before.

1973 photo of mom, Miguel, Gloria and me. Gloria was able to stand on her own but had trouble walking.

Ramón added, “You may find Franqui already with a couple.  I told the two to arrive at 12:50 because young ones are often late. Once you’re all together, it’s easy.  You’ll walk for thirty minutes across an empty field. Then, you’ll cross a freeway and you’ll wait for a city bus. The ride to San Diego is about 45 minutes.” Ramón took a sip of his coffee. “While on the bus, don’t talk among each other and do not ask Franqui any questions. Simply get off where he gets off.”  

A group of teenagers took up the table next to us. One dragged a chair in order to join his friends. The wooden legs made a loud moan across the floor.  Ramón ignored it and continued with my dad, “I’ll meet you and your family at a house in San Diego around seven in the morning.  I assure you that all will go smoothly. Franqui is a good a kid.” Ramón nodded reassuringly. “Just follow him and all will work out fine. Tomorrow, we’ll drive to Pacoima and the day after, on Saturday, we’ll leave to Madera.  We’ll be there before noon. There, you pay me the other half”  

Many years later, my mother clarified, to me, that at the slit in the fence is where we entered America, not when we dashed across the freeway as I had believed.  There was nothing imposing about the fence and sneaking through the slit hardly seemed what I had imagined would be the grand entrance into a new country. 

Mom, age 16

There we were, in the outskirt of San Ysidro, some thirty minutes into California, in the first hours of March, short of breath from our sprint and hike.  Dad let Miguel stand on US soil for the first time and took Gloria from mom’s arms. My brother was two. “Shhh,” dad whispered.  “Todo está bien, hijo.”  Miguel stood tucked behind dad’s knees, peering at the coyote. 

Gloria was a different story.  At age two, she had a spell in which she lost consciousness.  In our squalid town of Totatiche, Jalisco, the doctor never was able to tell us what brought on the lapse.  Although my sister was born normal, when she woke up, Gloria was as an infant again, unable to even roll on her side.  Dad was in California, making the ordeal especially difficult on mom. Now, she was like a two-year old again, rather than four. Gloria’s condition made the 1300 mile trip to Tijuana, a bit more challenging than if she didn’t have such a condition. Along with Miguel, my parents had to care for two infants on the road.

The bus arrived on time and we were on our way to San Diego. We arrived at a house where over a dozen men slept on the floor of a large room. The women were taken to a different part of the house. In the morning, Ramón showed up. We got into his car along with another lady and a boy. There was no room for dad. So, he was put in the trunk along with our luggage. I recall being scared for him as we drove from San Diego to Los Ángeles. We arrived in Pacoima at about nine. At a hotel, we met two men and the lady and her child were taken elsewhere. We were lead to a room and ordered to not leave because we may be spotted by immigration. Later we realized that that was a scare tactic so that we would not escape without paying the rest of the money. An assistant to Ramón was told to bring us breakfast. Both men left but the food never arrived. By three in the afternoon, we were starving. Dad left to get us food but was met by Ramón in the lobby. Ramón was angry that his assistant didn’t feed us. He and dad got us food.

I had never heard of a sandwich. This one had ham. It looked strange but my stomach needed something. I took a bite and spit it out immediately. At that moment, I learned that I had strong aversion to mayonnaise. To this day, I consider it a most disgusting smell in a kitchen. I ate and apple that came with the sandwich. I must have eaten something else but I don’t recall what that may have been.

Pacoima to Madera. March 2, 1974

The following morning was Saturday, March 2, 1974. We left Pacoima early. This time, dad rode shotgun. Mom, Gloria, Miguel and I were occupied the backseat. Once we descended the Grapevine and entered the San Joaquín Valley, patches of light sprinkles saw our way to Madera.

I had never seen vineyards. After two hours, we drove off of Freeway 99 and went west on Avenue 12…more grape fields! Two miles later, we turned onto a dirt road and in the middle of a vineyard. There was a big red house with white trimming. I had never seen a house made of wood or one as big! The house was shaped like an L and was divided into three sections. The outer two were occupied by farm workers and we were to live in the middle. Dad lead us to short end of the L because a friend from our hometown lived there among other laborers. He was a tall and slender fellow with hair the color of wheat fields. He was known as el sordo (the deaf one) and had mastered the art of reading lips. He fried beans and for the first time, we had tortillas made by a machine.

iPhone selfie of mom and me